Sunday, 30 November 2014

Indian Philosophy – Melody and Millstone: PART II

 G Ramakrishna

A total rejection of idealism means the acceptance of a secular, rational and scientific approach, while idealism has religion-orientation, faith in the scriptures, and superstitions in most of its major forms, for its accessories (p 234). The other major contribution of the anti-idealist schools of thought consists of the defence of practice as the real criterion of truth (p 235). There is a whole subsection in Chattopadhyay's book entitled "Practice, the Criterion of Truth" (chapter 7, Section 8, pp 354ff) which highlights the 'supreme verdict of experience' as the effective means of establishing truth of knowledge. The most outspoken champions of this doctrine in the range of Indian philosophy are the Nyaya-Vaiseshikas whose basic conclusion is that "after a knowledge is proved true in practice, there remains no doubt about the proof; hence the question of proving the proof does not arise" (p 239). In fact, the insistence of the Nyaya-Vaiseshikas on practice is their sharpest weapon against idealism, and in their struggle against idealism they “brilliantly anticipate an epistemological position which contains the potential for the rejection of idealism, making room for science and materialism” (p 363).

Contrarily, idealism subsists on “a complete separation between theory and practice – between wisdom and action – for the ultimate defence of the idealist outlook” (p 101) and this separation is sought to be sublimated through the philosophical quibble of the ultimately real and the partially real, or what is referred to as paramarthika satya and vyavaharika satya respectively. The Indian idealist philosophers constitute a united front on the basis of an ‘essentially negative attitude’, the unreality of the objects of knowledge (bahyartha-sunyatva), as Kumarila, a purva-mimamsa philosopher, has put it. This characterization of the objects of knowledge as unreal is, as Debiprasad puts it, “the real pivot of idealism throughout its Indian career” (p 46).

The crux of Indian philosophy lied in the confrontation between idealism and its antithesis in the specifically Indian context. The procedure almost universally adopted by the Indian philosophers in their treatises is to counterpose an antithesis to a thesis and arrive at a judgement. Without two opposing views on a given philosophical question, any discussion is simply unthinkable. “Contradiction thus constitutes the essential precondition of philosophical activity” (p 7), which itself leads on to newer issues and resolutions.

At what stage of Indian history and under what conditions does Indian idealism emerge? It is obviously not the product of any subjective fancy, pure reason, or mere mental speculation. Philosophy, like social life, has been and is susceptible to historical limitations. The difference between Vedic and Upanishadic philosophy, for example, is quite revealing in this connection. In the reckoning of the Vedic poet, composing the Vedic song is the equivalent of the carpenter making chariot. It simply means that the Vedas do not decry manual labour. Rigveda (1.130.6) conceives the chariot-maker as a wise man. The indication is that contemplation alone does not make for wisdom. For the ancient poets, manual skill is itself a mark of wisdom (p 142). It is only at a later stage that “secret wisdom” begins to parade itself in glowing colours by trampling on the more honest wisdom of skilful artisanship and the like. Illustrating it with copious references from the Upanishadic texts, Chattopadhyaya concludes that “the ruling ideas of the Upanishads are not unconnected with the ruling powers of the Upanishadic age” (p 115). The renowned Yajnavalkya and his fellow-speculators could not have gone about philosophizing without the patronage of the nobles (p 124), which in turn would be impossible in the absence of the production of a surplus in society through improved techniques of production. The contrast between the early Vedic period and the later Upanishadic period is precisely this. In the early Vedic period, “the devotion of a selected few of the community to the cultivation of pure speculation is not yet objectively possible, for the community does not produce enough surplus to meet their material requirements” (p 126). With the production of surplus and its aggrandizement by a few also develops the tendency towards idealism. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya has put it in a nutshell in his introduction to Lokayata (p axxii): “… so long as human consciousness retains its moorings in manual labour, it remains instinctively materialist. Fore there is a sense of objective coercion about the labour process itself … This is negatively substantiated by the fact that the emergence of the idealistic outlook in the human consciousness presupposes a separation of thought from action - mental labour from manual labour – along with a sense of degradation socially attached to the latter. The result is an exhalation of the spirit of consciousness – of pure thought or pure reason – to the status of a delusional omnipotence having, as it were, the power to dictate terms to reality. And this is the essence of the idealistic outlook”.

It may be interesting to note here the discussion concerning Vedic ritual or Yajna which “must have originally been something like the magic rites still to be observed among some present-day primitive peoples surviving in certain pockets of the modern world” (p 111). In their original form, magic rites are a source of greater confidence in themselves for the performers. The rites did not bring about (as they do not and cannot bring about now) any change in objective reality. Early man grappling with nature came to believe that he could exercise his authority on nature and control her through the magic rites. The genuine role of magic rites is most aptly summarized by George Thomson: “It changes their (performers) subjective attributed to reality, and so indirectly it changes reality”. With the production of surplus, the rituals also assumed a new class character; they became their opposites. “These become tools for a new technique – that of man’s struggle against man” (p 111). “The new norm is that of a split society in which the powers and privileges belong to the kings and nobles, though secondarily also to their ideological apologists – the priests” (p 112). The tragedy is that this philosophy and social division still persist, even as a good number of our “scientists” still remain wedded to the outlook of the early performers of magic rites, insofar as they have greater belief in  the soothing effect of a pseudo saint or ‘god-incarnate’ than in the prowess of science itself. But the redeeming factor is that the source-books of Indian idealism, namely the Upanishads, also present the pioneering scientific tradition of Indian philosophy which could act as an inspiring beacon of light for science-orientation today” (p 118).

The chapter on the social function of Indian idealism (ch 5) is from this point of view a highly remarkable portion of the book. Idealist philosophy is the whip with which the ruling exploiting class regiments thinking. Those who accuse socialist societies, based on the laws of dialectical materialisms, of regimentation had better understand this correctly. The law-givers of ancient India (and unfortunately our modern law-givers and dispenser are not always exception to this) professing unbounded adherence to the idealistic faith recorded their utter detest for ‘free thinking’ in the most unambiguous language (p 171). Search for truth and quest after perfection under such conditions must remain elusive. The idealist philosophers who meekly submitted to the dictates of the law-givers had only the scholastic duty of adducing arguments in favour of the conclusions and social values stipulated by the law-givers. The rigidity of the caste system uncompromisingly nullified all seemingly lofty enunciations of the idealist philosophers. The profound monist philosopher, Sankara, and a host of others, declaring the universality of all souls nevertheless scrupulously differentiated the ‘Brahmin Soul’ from ‘Sudra Soul’! Some of the revolting prescriptions of the law-givers spearheaded by Manu send a shiver down the spine of any reasonably human individual. Attempts have been made by quite a few embarrassed historians and philosophers of modern Indian to explain away the treachery perpetrated on people of the lower castes in ancient Indian by pointing out that the system of caste division was no more than a mere rational social arrangement defining the division of labour among the members of society. They argue that labour-mobility was also there. To crow it all, they quote with a flourish the lines from Bhagavadgita (4.13) where caste distinction is said to be based on characteristics and action of the individual. These scolars do no even by chance refer to the multiples of statements of the law-givers on the issue. This is frankly unacademic and unethical, considering the fact that the law-givers ruled the roost and philosophers appeared on the scene only later to justify the ways of the law-givers to the populace. The law-givers with no hesitation or reservation proclaim the view that caste is congenital and hence also the discrimination of the caste hierarchy. For example, Apastamba in his Dharmasutra state: “There are four castes and each preceding group is superior to the subsequent group by virtue of the birth itself. The non-sudras are to perform holy duties like studying the Veda, offering oblations in sacrifices, etc. The duty of the sudra is to serve those of the other upper castes. The higher the caste of the person chosen by the sudra to serve, the greater the reward accruing to him” (Catvaro varnah brahmana kshatriya vaisya sudraah. Tesham purvatah purve janmatah sreyan. Asudranam adustakarmanam samupayanam vedahyayanamagnyadheyam phalavanti ca karmani. Susrusha sudrasyetaresam varnanam. Purvasmin purvasmin varne nihsreyasam bhuyah). The great Manu ordain that the expiation for killing of a sudra is identical with that for killing of a cat, frog, lizard, owl, or crow (chapter 11 of Manusmriti). Gautama says that a sudra adulterer shall have his organ cut; his Brahmin counterpart shall, however, only pay a fine! What dothe Indian idealist philosophers do in the face of such ordinances? – Recapitulate, strengthen the hold of the law-givers by giving a philosophical foundation to the prescriptions of these law-givers, and thereby perpetuate the misery that the evil system gives rise to (pp 195-201). This is not done unconsciously either.  Nor is it a peculiarly Indian phenomenon. The Indian law-givers and idealist philosophers have their monstrous and cunning counterparts in other countries and civilizations. Debiprasad gives us a succinct view of these others in a memorable section of the book (ch 5 section 4) entitled “Social Function of Superstition” (pp 178-85). This chapter is, indeed, a must for everyone who wants to understand the ramifications of idealist philosophy, of which superstition is an inseparable part. Socrates, Plato, Plybius, Strabo, Kautilya, Manu and Medatithi have all one thing in common and that is to defend the fortress of oppressors through forceful pleas in favor of idealism and superstition.

This is Part I of the essay first published in  Marxist Miscellany, No.7, March 1977.
It also appears in The Living Marx, Ma-Le Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983 (Page 9 - 28)

Dr. G Ramkrishna is the Chief Editor of Hosatu, a progressive periodical in Kannada. He was Professor of English at National College, Bangalore and a Visiting Professor at Kannada University, Hampi. He is the author a number of books in Kannada and English including The Strange Culture of M.S. Golvalkar,  The Living Marx, and Philosophy in China (in English), The features of the Anti-Fascist Movement, RSS – A Poisonous Tree, On Hindutva (Kannda)

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